Thursday, April 05, 2007

Ten Codes

[posted by Callimachus]

Come November I will have worked 22 years in daily newspaper newsrooms. Which means every hour of every working day for 22 years I've worked with a battery of police scanners chattering in the background.

Suffice it to say, I know the 10 code pretty well by now. Or I thought I did. I know it as it is used in Southeastern Pennsylvania. But I don't recognize what I know in this Wikipedia article on it. [I don't doubt Wikipedia is accurate in this case, but I'm surprised that the one I know is so different.]

For instance, around here, "10-5" means "off duty." An officer will say, "I'll be ten-five for dinner." But in the Wikipedia listing, 10-5 means "pick up an item." The closest to "off-duty" is 10-7, which is listed as "out of service" or "ending tour of duty."

There seems to be evidence of a pattern, where the meanings I know are shifted up two places from the ones listed in Wikipedia. For instance, I know "10-71" as "apparently mentally ill or deranged." As in, "The suspect appears to be 10-71; he thinks the trees are chasing him" (I just heard that one tonight, in fact). But in Wikipedia, 10-71 is "advise nature of fire" and 10-73 is "mental patient."

Others are not off the mark, however. 10-45 is "traffic accident" in both cases.

Anyone out there an expert on this?

I have stashed away in the back of my head an intention to do a little article someday on language evolution based on the 10 code. It is one of the simplest languages known to man -- fewer than 100 "words" -- yet it evolves and changes in ways linguists would recognize from studying Greek or Finnish.

For instance, dispatchers often stretch 10 code terms to euphemistically cover words they are reluctant to say on the air. "10-5" (as "off duty") routinely was used also to mean "dead" by police where I used to work. A broadcast about a car-deer collision, for instance, often would conclude with "The deer is 10-5."

My favorite use of it, however, was by a dispatcher sending out a police officer to see a woman about her complaint about her neighbor. The dispatcher gave the officer the address, and she said the woman had complained that the man had repeatedly called her and asked her to meet him after dark in his yard. "He said he ...," and here she paused, "He said his clothes would be 10-5."